University of Washington researchers found that a "surprisingly small" number of this year's minor-party candidates had campaign Web sites, said Philip Howard, the assistant professor of communication who led the study.
"We expected to find that, across the board, minor candidates, challengers and candidates in competitive races would use the Internet to get their message out," Howard said, "but this wasn't so."
The findings run counter to widespread expectations that the Web would offer alternative candidates a cost-effective way to promote their ideas, organize volunteers and collect donations.
"This year, the electorate was highly polarized and there wasn't much room for third-party candidates," Howard said. "Those who did run chose to spend what funds they had on conventional ads."
Overall, Howard and his 120-student research team tracked 1,400 U.S. Senate, U.S. House and state gubernatorial candidates, and found that the Internet often formed an important part of their communication strategies. But for all three offices, Republicans and Democrats outpaced third-party candidates, such as Greens and Libertarians, in their presence on the Web.
Of the 159 Senate candidates tracked in the study, for example, 113 had Web sites - about 71 percent - while barely half of the minor-party Senate candidates were online.
The margin was even greater for House and governor's races, in which the major party nominees were more than twice as likely as third-party candidates to be on the Web.
Howard's team, which operates a political-research site called CampaignAudit.org, not only monitored 2004 Web use , but compared it to studies from four previous election seasons.
In comparison with the 2000 campaigns, the proportion of senatorial and gubernatorial candidates using Web sites actually diminished in 2004, and only the proportion of House candidates using the Web increased.
"We expected that candidates in competitive races would be eager for cost-effective ways of getting their campaign message out," said Miko Tempski, a senior political science student on the project, "but this seems to be true only in House races."
For each year studied, Howard and his students were able to track more than 90 percent of the candidates, with many of the unsampled being write-ins.
This year, Republican and Democratic candidates were equally likely to have Web sites. In the 11 races for governor, every major-party challenger had a site, but Senate and House challengers were less likely to have Web sites than incumbents were.
Overall, about 68 percent of this year's 1,209 U.S. House candidates and 44 gubernatorial candidates had campaign Web sites.
Democrats and Republicans were considered major-party candidates, while minor parties included Independents, Libertarians, Greens and many others. Because of different sampling strategies over time, slight increases or decreases in Internet use may not be significant.